Perhaps not too many people know that there are natural weapons against diseases which can be grown right in the garden or farm. One such weapon is the wrinkly green vegetable with a distinctive bitter taste called ampalaya. Known in the science world as ‘Momordica charantia,’ it is called bitter gourd or bitter melon.
In terms of nutritional contents, the fruits and leaves of the ampalaya are reportedly rich in minerals and vitamins, notably iron, calcium, phosphorus and Vitamin B. In the Philippines, it is prepared into various dishes: it be stir-fried with ground beef and oyster sauce, or with eggs and diced tomato. A very popular dish from the Ilocos region is the ‘pinakbet,’ which consists mainly of ampalaya, eggplant, okra, string beans, tomatoes, lima beans, and other various regional vegetables stewed with a little bagoongbased stock.
Philippine traditional medicine attributes many medicinal properties to ampalaya. Books and articles on Philippine medicinal plants list several diseases where ampalaya is apparently beneficial. Reportedly, the extract from the leaves or roots shrinks hemorrhoids. The leaf juice is supposedly a good antitussive (i.e., it stops cough), antipyretic (i.e., for fever), purgative and anthelmintic (i.e., against roundworms).
Ampalaya is also used to treat sterility in women and it can supposedly alleviate liver problems. Likewise, it is claimed that ampalaya has some antimicrobial activity and can help infected wounds.
“Commonly known as ampalaya in the Philippines, researchers refer to it as a vegetable, fruit, or herb,” wrote Frank Murray in his book, ‘Ampalaya: Nature’s Remedy for Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes.’ “It is indigenous to Asia, but is cultivated around the world, where it goes by almost 90 different names.”
Yes, ampalaya has been considered as nature’s answer to diabetes. Today, almost ioo studies have demonstrated the blood sugar lowering effect of this bitter fruit. Dr. A. Raman and Dr. C. Lau, who reviewed over 150 pre-clinical and clinical studies on amplaya’s antidiabetes properties and phytochemistry, concluded that, “Oral administration of fruit juice or seed powder (of bitter melon) causes a reduction in fasting blood glucose and improves glucose tolerance.”
In the Philippines, Dr. William Torres, former director of Bureau of Food and Drugs, came up with this conclusion after reviewing several studies done on ampalaya: “Ampalaya fruits, leaves, seeds and other parts, when used as dry powders, extracts, decoctions, fresh or cooled, have clearly demonstrated hypoglycemic activity.”
Researchers have identified the key compounds present in ampalaya, notably polypeptide-P, a plant insulin found only in the ampalaya. Similar to animal insulin, polypeptide-P lowers elevated blood sugar levels. Dr. Torres maintains that ampalaya, when taken regularly, helps to increase glucose tolerance and “potentiate insulin.”
Even ampalaya leaves have some blood sugar lowering effect among diabetics, according to Dr. Eduardo G. Gonzales, of the College of Medicine at De La Salle University. “This effect is noticeable regardless of how the leaves are prepared – boiled then eaten, or in the form of extract, tea, capsule or tablet.”
Dr. Gonzales, however, warned diabetics not to be “overly enthusiastic in replacing their proprietary medicines with ampalaya teas, capsules or tablets.” As he wrote in his column published in a national daily: “None of the studies so far conducted on ampalaya and diabetes can be labeled conclusive. All were done using a very limited number of human subjects, and most are not controlled.”
He further cautioned: “Ampalaya should be considered, at best, just an adjunct in the treatment of type 2 diabetes mellitus that could possibly reduce the dose of antidiabetic drugs that responsive patients need. It should not be regarded as a stand-alone treatment that can take the place of established medicines.”
Recently, the Bureau of Food and Drugs approved the first ampalaya tea in the country — Charantia Ampalaya Tea — as ideal for diabetics’ special dietary needs. However, diabetics who wish to try ampalaya need not spend money on the tablet, capsule or tea forms of the plant. They can cultivate the plant or buy it from the market and make their own preparation.
To prepare ampalaya extract, the Department of Health says the following steps should be followed: Wash and finely chop leaves. Add six tablespoons of the chopped leaves in two glasses of water. Boil the mixture for 15 minutes in an uncovered pot. Cool down and strain. Drink 1/3 cup of the solution 3 times a day. Alternately, ampalaya tops can be steamed and eaten (1/2 cup 2 times a day).
But the Philippines is not the only country promoting ampalaya against diseases. China, too, is doing several studies. In the book, ‘Zhong Yao Da Ci Dian (Great Dictionary of Chinese Medicines),’ ampalaya (or ‘ku gua’) is described as bitter and cold and entering the heart, spleen, and stomach channels, or, alternatively, the heart, liver, and lung channels.
“Its traditional functions are that it clears summer heat and flushes heat, brightens the eyes, and resolves toxins,” the book states. “It has been traditionally indicated for heat disease vexatious thirst leading to drinking, summer heat stroke, dysentery, red, painful eyes, welling abscesses, swellings, and cinnabar toxins, and malign sores.”
In China, several studies have shown that ampalaya have cholesterollowering effects. In one study, elevated cholesterol and triglyceride levels in diabetic rats were returned to normal after to weeks of treatment. In another study, results showed that bitter melon extract reduced triglyceride and lowdensity lipid (LDL) levels, and increased high-density lipid (HDI.) levels.
In yet another Chinese study, HDLs (the so-called good cholesterols) were consistently elevated by dietary bitter melon both in the presence and absence of dietary cholesterol, indicating an ability of bitter melon to prevent or protect against atherosclerosis.
Though it has been claimed that ampalaya’s bitterness comes from quinine, no evidence could be located supporting this claim. Ampalaya is traditionally regarded by Asians, as well as Panamanians and Colombians, as useful for preventing and treating malaria. Laboratory studies have confirmed that various species of the bitter fruit have anti-malarial activity, though human studies have not yet been published.
Recently, laboratory tests suggest that compounds in ampalaya might be effective for treating HIV infection. As most compounds isolated from bitter melon that impact HIV have either been proteins or glycoproteins lectins, neither of which are well-absorbed, it is unlikely that oral intake of ampalaya will slow HIV in infected people. It is possible oral ingestion of ampalaya that could offset negative effects of anti-HIV drugs, if a test tube study can be shown to be applicable to people. In one preliminary clinical trial, an enema form of ampalaya extract showed some benefits in people infected with HIV.
“It is only now that modern science is beginning to investigate the plant’s many medicinal uses,” Lito Abelarde, president of the Chamber of Herbal Industries of the Philippines Inc., told a national daily.